By Ed Reiter
Brand-name merchandise normally commands a higher price. The price was really high back in the 1980s when the merchandise was coins and Brand was spelled with a capital “B.”
A series of auctions from 1982 through 1985 witnessed the sale of the last remaining segments of the Virgil Brand Collection, one of the most famous and most fabulous of all numismatic treasure troves. In a sense, the items sold were the “dregs” of the collection – the last coins remaining after most of the top material was dispersed decades earlier. Despite this, the auctions realized a total of nearly $10 million.
Not one coin had been added to the Brand Collection since 1926, when Virgil M. Brand, the man who formed it, died at the age of 60. Many coins, by contrast, had been sold from the collection in the intervening years; indeed, what remained was just a small fraction of the holdings Brand amassed before his death. Of the staggering sum of coins he left behind – 368,000, according to an inventory taken at the time – well over 90 percent had already been sold.
Still, even after the sale of so much material, the portion that remained was sizable enough – and valuable enough – to make its sale one of the biggest numismatic auction events ever staged.
Virgil Brand’s biographers have called him “a numismatist’s numismatist,” and it’s hard to find fault with that assessment. Brand was a man of wide-ranging numismatic interests, and he also was a man of great wealth who, by all accounts, would spare no expense in acquiring new coins for his collection. On more than one occasion, he is known to have purchased entire collections just to get one particular coin he truly coveted.
Brand derived his fortune from a brewery in Chicago. His German-born father, Michael Brand, had been an original partner in the business that eventually became the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Later, Michael Brand founded a brewery of his own in Chicago, and as a young man Virgil worked as a bookkeeper there, developing meticulous record-keeping skills that served him well throughout his life in his hobby as well as his business.
In time, Virgil Brand established yet another brewery, the Brand Brewery ... the business prospered ... and as his profits mounted, so, too, did his purchases of coins. He came to be known as a coin collector of almost unlimited interests, almost unlimited means and firm determination to get each coin on which he set his sights. Brand, it was said (with admiration and also a bit of envy), wanted everything – and had it.
In a story reporting his death, The Numismatist, official journal of the American Numismatic Association, commented that Brand’s specialty was “the numismatic field – ancient, medieval, and modern,” thus conveying, simply but effectively, the all-encompassing nature of his interests.
“With him,” the author wrote, “to desire a coin was to own it if it could be purchased, no matter what its degree of rarity or its price.
“He was a student of coins as well,” the story went on. “For general numismatic knowledge, few collectors were better posted.”
Brand first got involved with coins in the late 1870s or early 1880s – and once he started buying them, he never really stopped. At one time, his collection was said to be the largest in the world in private hands and second in size only to the one in the British Museum. At that time, of course, prices were laughably low by present standards; even so, his holdings were valued at $2 million or more at the time of his death.
Among the great rarities then in the collection were an 1804 silver dollar and two Brasher doubloons. All of these were among the coins dispersed in the period after Brand’s death – but coincidentally, both of the Brashers came on the market again during the period just before the 1980s Brand sales. One changed hands in 1979 for $430,000 – then the highest price ever paid for any coin at public auction; the other was sold privately in 1981 for a reported $650,000.
Incredibly, Brand didn’t keep his collection in a bank; he kept it in his apartment, a modest suite of seven rooms situated over his brewery. He stored the coins in satchels hidden behind the shelves in his equally vast numismatic library. Yet, while he may have seemed careless regarding the coins’ security, he was painstakingly thorough concerning their proper storage. Indeed, his techniques for storing the coins are nearly as intriguing as the Brand Collection itself.
Whenever Brand acquired a coin, he would wrap it in tissue, place it in an individual, serially numbered envelope, then tuck the envelope into a tightly packed cigar box along with other material of a similar nature. The contents of the envelopes were staggered; in other words, Brand would place the coin in one envelope at the extreme left, then place the coin in the next envelope in the center and finally move all the way to the right in the envelope after that. In this way, he was able to compress a greater quantity of material into each box with minimum risk of damage to the coins.
He then would store the cigar boxes in the leather satchels, which were made for just this purpose according to specifications he provided. Each satchel would accommodate 30 cigar boxes and, when full, would weigh about 250 pounds.
Most of the “cigar boxes” also were custom made and never contained cigars; some, however, did come by way of tobacco shops, and these bore labels such as “Cremo” and “La Vesca.”
Brand entered each and every purchase in a journal, and his legacy included more than 50 volumes of original and photocopied data detailing the contents of his collection.
Disclosure of plans for the 1980s auctions came as a surprise to many hobbyists. Despite recurrent rumors to the contrary, it was widely believed that all of Brand’s coins had been dispersed.
Brand was a bachelor, and following his death his holdings were inherited by his two surviving brothers, Horace and Armin. At first, in the interest of settling the estate, they had sought to sell the collection as a unit, offering it first to the Smithsonian Institution for $4 million and later to John Work Garrett, another prominent collector, for $5 million – a price which would have averaged out to less than $14 per coin. These offers were rejected, though, and so the two brothers split the coins. The split, it should be noted, was far from quick and easy; it took a 10-year legal fight to work out details of the distribution.
Thereafter, Horace and Armin Brand did, indeed, sell off the bulk of the collection. Horace, in fact, disposed of his portion completely. But Armin Brand, while selling some material, also kept a great many coins and bequeathed these to his daughter, Jane Brand Allen. She, in turn, kept the collection intact for sentimental reasons, storing the coins in three separate bank vaults in New York City and Newburgh, N.Y.
During the period of Mrs. Allen’s stewardship, the lore of the collection gained yet another layer of patina. In order to heighten security when transferring the coins from one bank to another, Mrs. Allen had them placed in specially made tin suitcases – and these, in turn, were fitted into large wooden crates. These crates – padlocked, 2-foot-square cases with heavy metal liners – came to be known as “gorilla cases” because it seemed to take the strength of a gorilla to move them.
Mrs. Allen died in 1981, and her three heirs – two sons and a daughter – chose to put the final segment of the Brand Collection up for sale.
This final impressive segment emerged in a market which was far more active than the one in which Brand acquired the collection to begin with. And it proved to be a major force in stimulating the market even further – for while most of the great rarities had been sold many years earlier, it still had its share of eye-popping numismatic items.
Rare ancient coins accounted for most of the material. Highlights among these included an extremely rare Roman gold medallion of the Emperor Galerius, who ruled about 300 A.D., and superlative aurei (Roman gold coins) of Emperor Septimius Severus and his family from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The Galerius piece, from the famous Arras Hoard, was said to be the first of its type to appear on the auction market in two decades.
Only about 10 percent of the remaining Brand material consisted of U.S. coins, but these items included some exceptional rarities. Among these were a 1793 Indian peace medal depicting President George Washington; an 1819 half eagle; an 1829 “large-date” half eagle; and an 1849 Cincinnati Mining & Trading Co. $10 gold piece, one of the earliest territorial gold coins struck during the California Gold Rush.
The sale was a special treat for two professional numismatists who spent a good part of a year cataloging the coins as consultants to Jane Brand Allen’s family.
“It’s really a collector’s dream,” one of them exclaimed. “Working with one of the legendary collections of all time is the kind of experience you simply can't beat. It’s just staggering, just amazing to go through the ledgers and see the things that Virgil Brand acquired.
“It boggles the mind to think what must have been there at one time.”